T Nation


From USA today

Idiots who buy stuff off spam ruin e-mail for the rest of us

Who is buying stuff from spammers?
This is what I want to know. Actually, this is what I want everyone to know so we can hunt down these people and give them enormous wedgies.

For they are ultimately responsible for this relentless spam, which is becoming the kind of biblical scourge Charlton Heston would’ve directed at Yul Brynner, if e-mail had been around when God sent down the Ten Commandments to the Paramount studios.

Fact is, spammers wouldn’t send out junk e-mail if nobody ? absolutely nobody ? ever clicked through to buy anything.

This is what the anti-spam crowd isn’t saying. The politicians considering anti-spam legislation, the Federal Trade Commission officials looking at regulations, the companies scrambling to sell spam-killing technology ? all of them are aiming at the spam proliferators. Just last week, Virginia became the 27th state to pass anti-spam laws. The attitude is: Prosecute these spammers! Punish them! Defeat them!

Don’t get me wrong ? I’m all for it. I say we declare a “war on spamorism” and send the worst spammers to Guantanamo Bay to mingle indefinitely with the Taliban.

But to take such punitive action without attacking the other end ? the spam clickers ? is like going after the Colombian drug lords without trying to curtail drug use, or suing McDonald’s because it makes fatty food when the reason it makes fatty food is that billions of people buy it.

To be effective, this has to be a two-pronged attack. People have to be told: Never open spam, and if you do, never respond or click through to the Web site it’s luring you to ? and if you go that far, never buy anything.

Spammers only send out spam because it is successful. They send oceans of it because e-mail costs almost nothing, and if one person in a million responds, that’s good enough.

The e-mail pitches don’t have to be well aimed or well done, which means any goofball can do it. This is proved, for instance, by the outfit currently sending spam about an IQ test under the header, “From: Albert Enistine.” My guess is that Albert Enistine is the guy who came up with the theory of revalitaty.

Who could possibly be buying from spammers? You might be thinking: “Sure, my boss acts like a blowhard to compensate for his inadequate manliness, but he can’t be buying those enhancement devices, can he?”

Well, he can. The Direct Marketing Association (DMA), whose members include bulk e-mailers, said last week that 37% of consumers it surveyed have bought something as a result of receiving e-mail.

Of course, those numbers might be as objective as the battle reports from Saddam’s information minister, but the point is on target: More than a few consumers are supporting spam.

And it’s not just the feebleminded or ignorant. It’s people who should know better. “Lord help me, I actually bought something as a result of spam,” David Rosen of New York consulting firm Walek & Associates writes in an e-mail. “The perfect pasta pot. I’ve seen it on TV, gotten e-mail spam on it and finally saw it at the New York Auto Show last week and bought it! The pot works, but I HATE SPAM.”

Well, duh.

So the spam grows and grows, filling our in-baskets the way Yao Ming would fill a Mini Cooper. One survey by Public Opinion Strategies says spam is up 21% since the first of the year. Deleting the overnight buildup has become a morning necessity, like shaving. The stuff gunks up corporate e-mail systems.

“If spam gets any worse, there will be an overall problem that might threaten everyone’s benefiting from e-mail, including spammers as a group,” says Larry Downes, author of business book The Strategy Machine.

Possible solutions pop up everywhere. Companies such as Surf Control, IronPort Systems and MailWasher ? the last based in New Zealand, which gives you an idea of the worldwide scope of the problem ? make software that helps block spam. Tech ?ber-lawyer Lawrence Lessig is talking up the idea of the government offering bounties to citizens who turn in deceptive spammers. IBM scientist Adam Emery is working on software that would make a spammer pay you to interrupt you with a message.

But none of that will stop spam. As long as there is money to be made, spammers will work to find their way around software blocks and skirt bounty hunters, regulators and law enforcement. In that sense, spam is like running water ? block it one place, and it will cut a new path somewhere else.

There’s also a complication: defining spam. It’s like defining tasty food ? one person’s perfect squid sushi is another’s garden hose on rice. We can mostly agree that scam letters from fictional relatives of deposed Nigerian officials are spam.

But after that, it can get tricky. Like, I just got a PR pitch titled “Farm safety not just for farmers.” Legitimate as it might be for someone on the hay-bailer beat, to me it’s spam. Those discrepancies make it harder for software or regulators to block spam.

In the end, there might be only one way for us ? the people ? to take back our electronic lives. It’s a Gandhi-like approach of passive resistance. Ignore spam. Give it no sustenance. Deprive it of its very reason for being. If we all remain strong and act in concert, spam will wither and die.

At least we can hope so.

An old friend of mine actually responded to one of those penis enlargement e-mails. He spent an hour a day for years stretching his member. All he claims to have ever gotten out of it was chafing. “Yeah, right” you’re saying. “An old friend. That’s a new one.”